Muang Thong face stiff challenge from Thailand upstarts Chiang Rai

After a break of almost five months, Thailand league action resumes on Saturday, with Muang Thong United ready to defend their title from a number of potential challengers.

Last season ended six weeks early, due to the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. But many players remained active. Between late September and mid-December, Thailand saw their national team draw with Australia in a 2018 AFC World Cup qualifier, and retain the AFF Suzuki Cup with victory over Indonesia in the final.

Now it is time for the domestic season to get underway, and for the rebranded Thai League's top division to be known as T1.

Here are five things to look out for in the 2017 T1 season:

1. Samba Beetles in the north

Chiang Rai United have made the most noise in the close season as they set their sights on becoming title challengers.

Alexandre Gama, Buriram United's treble-winning head coach in 2015, has been brought in to lead the way. He has wasted no time in adding some of his countrymen to reinforce the squad.

Striker Rafael Coelho has arrived on loan from Goa FC, two years after a spell with Gama at Buriram was cut short by injury. Attacking midfielder Felipe Azevedo has also come on board to add attacking impetus to the midfield. When Aussie striker Mark Bridge got injured, the Beetles turned to Australia again and signed Henrique Silva -- a Brazil-born striker, who is now a naturalised Australian.

However, the biggest signing has not come from Brazil, but the Bangkok metropolis. Chiang Rai splashed out a Thai transfer record fee of a reported 50 million baht -- about US$1.5m -- on Tanaboon Kesarat. The surprise is that champions Muang Thong United were prepared to let the defensive midfielder go north.

Gama is likely to try and build his team around the 23-year-old, who has already earned 28 caps for his country. After such a busy and high profile off season, all eyes will be on Chiang Rai United in the campaign to come.

2. More to come from Muang Thong

The defending champions are clear favourites to retain their title, with a squad that is settled and improving. The Kirins have put together a side who have most of the Thai national team's first eleven, supplemented by a foreign contingent where the War Elephants are weak -- in attack and central defence.

In Cleiton Silva and Xisco Jimenez, they have two strikers who can score more than 20 league goals. In front of the back four, former South Korean international and AFC Champions League (ACL) winner Lee Ho is likely to take the place vacated by Tanaboon.

Elsewhere, the Thai contingent offers strength in depth, with the likes of Theerathon Bunmathan at left-back, Sarach Yooyen in central midfield, Chanathip Songkrasin in the playmaker role and Teerasil Dangda as a deep-lying striker.

With many of the Thai players in their early to mid-20's is a group that is getting better. Despite the loss of Chanathip in mid-season -- he heads to Japan to join Consadole Sapporo on loan --Totchtawan Sripan's side look to have enough quality to win their second successive title.

3. Buriram 'strike back' to second best

At this time last year, most people expected Buriram United to ease to a fourth successive Thai League title, having been such a dominant force in a treble-winning 2015 season.

But things went badly wrong at the Thunder Castle in 2016. Diogo Luis Santo -- player of the year in 2015 -- missed the first half of the season through injury, and the scars of a disastrous ACL campaign affected their league form.

Buriram were unbeaten at home in the domestic game in 18 months when Muang Thong thrashed them 3-0 in April. This was the challengers' first-ever victory over their nemesis, and they repeated the trick -- though by a narrower 3-2 scoreline -- at home later in the year.

Buriram's slogan for this season is "strike back". While most would expect them to improve on last year's fourth-place, it is unlikely that they will be good enough to finish ahead of Muang Thong. Diogo remains their main threat and fellow Brazilian Rogerinho - AFC Foreign Player of the Year in 2012 - looks an exciting addition as an attacking midfielder.

Young attackers Anon Amornlerdsak and Supachok Sarachat are two of Thai football's brightest prospects, and should see more game time this year. But it is unlikely to be enough to match Muang Thong, who took Theerathon from them halfway through last season.

4. Suzuki Cup hero Siroch spearheads Ubon challenge

Ubon UMT United earned promotion to the Thai League under the supervision of Scott Cooper, former coach of both Buriram and Muang Thong. While the Englishman's return to the top tier creates some intrigue, all eyes will be on Siroch Chatthong, the striker who became a national hero in 2016.

Siroch was unknown to most people outside Ubon Ratchathani province until called up for Thailand's World Cup qualifying squad last August. Already 23 years old at the time, there was scepticism about the striker's unimpressive scoring record in a modest lower league career. But Siroch's imposing physical presence was something that the Thais needed.

Siroch really came to the fore with an excellent display in the 2-2 draw at home to Australia in November before clinching the AFF Suzuki Cup with a double in a 2-0 victory over Indonesia in the second leg of the final on Dec. 17.

It will be intriguing to see how Siroch fares week in, week out, against the top sides in the country. But not too many defenders will be looking forward to facing the man the Thai press dubbed "The Hulk".

5. Ratchaburi's flair play

In the last three years, Ratchaburi have become known for attractive attacking football but, so far, it has failed to produce trophy-winning results. Last season, they started with Yannick Djalo, Heberty Fernandes, Takuya Murayama and Nattawut Sombatyotha as a thrilling attacking foursome, but they failed to finish higher than sixth place in the league.

Of that four, only Nattawut remains, but the Dragons have made some interesting buys that promise more offensive flair at Ratchaburi this year. Moroccan playmaker Alharbi El Jadeyaoui has joined, along with Armenia's former Ajax striker Edgar Manucharyan and Cameroonian striker Marcel Essombe.

While it is difficult to see the Dragons making a significant improvement on 2016's finish, it looks likely that they will once again be a team worth watching.